travelWhy is it that learning happens at a time in our lives when we don’t understand its benefits?! Like being pushed around in a pram, being sent for a nap in the afternoon, or having all our meals made for us, as a child we just don’t appreciate the good things until they’re too late. Instead, as with generations before us, we rebel against our parents, and ignore or waste the wonderful advice they give us.

I include the advice we give and receive about learning a language in this. It’s all very well spouting off about the many benefits for a child being raised bilingually, but sometimes it’s not as easy as we would hope. In the process of raising our children we want to find a good balance of independence and conformity, but often in the process we find that we have a son or daughter who doesn’t want to do exactly what we have asked.

Sounds familiar? I’m proud that my two kidlets are growing up with a will of their own- I would prefer this to being weak- willed, or too easily led. However, it does mean that some of the time, when I say “left”, they go right. When I say “jump”, they say “you must be kidding!” So it follows that when I say “How do you say X in German?”, they look at me with a mixture of disdain and amusement and blow a raspberry instead, like they can’t believe I don’t know and am asking them to say something terrible. How can I encourage them to do something that I know down the line they will be so extremely happy to be able to do?

Well, I guess this is how…

  • Set a good example.  Are you using your language as much as possible or are you speaking the community language most of the time with your children (and not even realizing it!)?  So many parents I know insist that they speak their language with their children ALL the time.  But when I hang out with these same parents they spend the majority of the time speaking to their children in the community language, without even realising it!  Believe me, it is very, very easy to fall into this pattern!  You can solve this by (1) being very aware of when you are and are not speaking your language with your children and then (2) switching to your language each time you catch yourself speaking the community language, or  (3) asking yourself why you tend to speak the community language with your children as much as you are.  If you can find the sources for that question, then you are already one step further along the path toward solving it.
  • Be consistent. Does your child know who speaks which language and when?  Are you going back and forth, speaking different languages randomly?  It isn’t the end of the world if you don’t have a perfectly consistent language pattern (and switching languages back and forth isn’t a crime) but a clear plan will make your language journey so much easier.  Ultimately, your young child wants to please you and she can do this best if it is clear what is expected of her.  If your child is confused or frustrated by not knowing what is expected, then it is very likely that she will simply stop speaking the language.  But watch out!  Don’t let your consistency turn into rigidity !  You need to make sure that your plan is serving you, not trapping you!  You are allowed to change your plan whenever needed but if you do, make sure to meet as a family to decide on what the new plan will be.  Then give the new plan some time to be fully implemented and assessed.
  • Make them need it. Why should your child use his minority language?  If your child can get everything he needs via the community language, then there is really no NEED to use the minority language.  A need can come in the form of many different things: to play a game, to speak with others who only speak the minority language (family, travel to another country), to understand a book or DVD in the minority language, to get something that he wants.  Some parents go as far as to refuse to answer their child unless the question is in the minority language.  I have never done this with my kids, but for some families it works well.  This is where you will have to be creative based on what resources you have available (Can you hire a nanny who only speaks the language?  Can you travel to a country where the language is spoken?).  Need can come in the form of that which is most familiar: a child often will speak the minority language with parents simply out of habit (it would feel too strange if they didn’t)!  Remember that each child is different so a need for one child may be very different for another.  Get creative!
  • Use it as much as possible. When bringing two or more languages into play, there’s only so much time each one can be spoken. I have written about the magic number of 30% before (See Exposure: how much is enough?). Maintaining at least this much of the minority language for your child will help them to be fluent in the language. Of course it’s not a fail- safe number, and many other factors come into account. Exposure is essential, of course, but even if you are not hitting the 30% mark, it’s still important to keep going with as much as possible. Bring in the other points above too: need/ consistency/ a good example, and you will be doing your best for your child.

I have heard so many stories of children starting off uninterested in the second language, and then something small clicking in their brain which triggers a future of happy bilingualism. As parents you need to do what they love, specifically in the language you want to encourage. Something as simple as watching a favourite film in the language, singing songs, or visiting a country where the language is spoken is enough to awaken the interest, and consistency will keep it awake.  Reward them when they do well- not necessarily with sweets or treats- often just praise is enough for them to realise that they have done something good, and will encourage them to try it again.

I would love to rewind time and be a child again, but with the knowledge that I have now, that life gets harder and more exhausting, and that I should soak up the good stuff (and all the languages) while I can!